by Joseph Merlin Bowers
Bob Dylan was a powerful influence on many in my generation including me. Generally speaking, I consider the above another or his wise, astute lines. But I take at least one exception to it. I hate serious mental illnesses. Words don’t exist to adequately describe the depth to which I loath and despise them. I hate what they do to people, what they put people through and what they make people do.
That being the case, I decided long ago that I would fight these diseases any time I can, any way I can and any where I can. I will still be doing this the day I die. To that end I published a book about my life hoping to give people with diseases like mine a reason to believe-to hang on to hope. I know how hard that can be when psychotic episodes keep coming back. My book is not exactly a best seller. I got involved with an influential national advocacy organization. They have run a number of my essays or blogs over the years. But it wasn’t until recently that I found a place where I think I can make a real difference.
I have moved to a new town where the State’s main mental hospital is located. Here I volunteer a lot at a drop in center for people with mental illnesses. There are professionals on the board and active at the center, but it has been and remains mostly peer run, by peers, for peers.
The peers most active here are from the hospital. They are either still living there or recently released on conditional release. They are doing very well in treatment and for this reason have a lot of privileges. They also have been incarcerated a period of years. This is because they fall in a high risk category because of the severity of the tragedies that got them there.
I am very honored that in several cases they have entrusted me with their stories. The stories are very sad, tragic and heartbreaking, and I so totally understand the hows and whys. “There but for the grace of God…”. Having been just as psychotic as any of them I could easily have been any of them. I have just been randomly luckier. Some of my episodes got me in trouble but nothing as serious as with these guys.
One girl in particular is an inspiration to me. She has been through metaphorical hell yet she is as loving, compassionate, warm, outgoing and caring about others as anyone I have ever met. If tragedy has changed her at all, it has made her a better person. Her mental health may be a little fragile. There are things she has to watch and to do to stay healthy, but deep inside there is iron. She is very strong
A mentor of mine passed away in November at the age of 98. Knowing him as I did I suspect that he did a set of calisthenics that day before dying. Among many other things, he was my high school football coach. He seemed to take a special interest in me, but I suspect he made all his players feel that way.
As a football coach he spoke often of what he called “intestinal fortitude,” a fancy way of saying guts. Coach Lamb taught me and others that in the battles that matter in life it always comes down to guts. Either you have intestinal fortitude or you don’t. They may be inborn or they may be forged in the metaphorical fires of hell. For some they become necessary for survival.
I have known people with serious mental illnesses who lost their ability to believe there was any reason for hope. One stepped in front of a bus, another in front of a train.
It has taken guts for this girl and others to survive.
One of my recurring delusional fantasies when I’ve been psychotic has been being tasked with leading an assault on the gates of hell. Like most delusional fantasies there was just the slightest grain of a reason for a delusional individual to think this might happen. There have been some notable warriors in my family tree. Anyway, I have been in a lot of places, some very undesirable, and I have met many people. In my travels I have met a handful of people strong enough so that I would want them by my side in such an assault. This girl is one.
The inspiration this girl has given me begs for me a couple of questions: Is it necessary to suffer greatly to become someone who cares deeply about others? I can’t answer that. If suffering has made this girl a better person, has it had a similar effect on me? I can’t answer that either.
Being that most of us want to be the best person we can be, this thought gives me something to hang onto. Maybe my suffering has brought out the best in me?
The last question begged by all of this is: Was it worth it? I can’t answer that either.
All that aside, I am finally doing something that I really want to do and believe in. At this drop in center we sometimes talk someone into making an appointment to see a doctor, or to get back on medication. Sometimes we help someone connect with a necessary service that exists in town. Sometimes we just provide a place where someone feels comfortable talking about something he needs to talk about but is very hard to talk about.
All of these things are victories in my war. They are not little things.